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COPING WITH COVID: Citibot

Innovation
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Coping with COVID

SC Biz News is speaking with small businesses and community leaders about the impact of the new coronavirus on business and industry, and how this is changing how they operate.
Contact Andy Owens, aowens@scbiznews.com, with any questions or ideas.


RileyBratton Riley said he’s never worked harder in his life than he has over the past month.

“We’re trying to sell a product or get our product in the hands of customers, but also ... let’s make it through this time period,” he said. “We want to come out of this time period better than we were.”

Riley, who developed and co-founded the municipal text messaging and chatbot software Citibot, said his primary focuses have been selling software and figuring out the loans the federal government is offering to small businesses.

Riley is also trying to evaluate what kind of impact the coronavirus will have on the company as a startup.

The past few years have been fruitful for startups seeking investments because of the country’s economic boom, but with a recession looming, Riley said he has to assume that most of the investment money has dried up. That means the timeline for Citibot to become profitable has shrunk, he said.

“There’s a lot of anxiety around,” Riley said. “We’ve got to change our business model to become profitable faster so that we can not have to rely on investment dollars. So that’s a whole new way we’ve got to look at things and, you know, sobering to say the least.”

Riley said he’s tried to be creative to sell Citibot’s product faster, including offering it to local governments for free during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He’s hoping some municipalities who are trying Citibot for free during the pandemic see the value of it outside of a crisis and decide to buy the product down the road.

“Basically, I’m making a bet that I’ll sell my product for free now to have the opportunity of a long-term relationship with the customer,” he said.

Riley said he knows that it’s a risk to provide Citibot for free in hopes of eventually making a sale, but it’s also more important that local governments are able to quickly communicate with the citizenry beyond social media and email, which are currently flooded with an “explosion of noise” as everyone takes their organizations virtual.

“Local governments are a trusted source of information and there’s so much confusion, information overload coming from all kinds of different sources,” Riley said. “But by and large, residents trust their local governments a heck of a lot more than they do the federal government. So how can we help them ... get the word out to folks, in particular that might not be watching the news, might not have internet in their home?”

Riley said he’s also had to remind himself, and his team, to pause during the day to relax and practice self-care.

“There is no time like now to do that,” he said. “It’ll make us better leaders and workers if we’re doing that because we have to do what we need to do to control our emotions and not overreact to the panic.”

Riley added that as anxious as startups might feel, it’s more important than ever to rest.

“You’ve got to sleep ... because then your creative juices will flow better,” he said. “We’ve got to get more creative about how we break through in the marketplace and connect better with customers and offer products of even more value.”

Reach Patrick Hoff at 843-849-3144.

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